What’s fat and squooshy, makes you laugh, is a sickly beige color, and otherwise spectacularly useless? Not that Frank TV guy, but Chumby! It’s an internet appliance that gets WiFi, has a color LCD touchscreen and accelerometer like an iPhone, so you can play silly games on it, has built-in speakers for streaming internet radio, and lets you install “widgets,” little homebrew applications, directly from a webpage you access by computer.
IBM sent me a free one for taking a class, and they retail for $180-200, depending on the model. They come in white, tan (ahem, “latte”) and black, and run on AC power with a supplied adapter. Since they require a WiFi connection, going mobile doesn’t quite make sense yet, but there’s a 9 volt battery hookup inside reserved for future use; right now it voids the warranty to use it. Oops. It has a headphone jack, two USB ports, and 64MB of built in flash memory, a 3.5″ 320×240 screen, and is open-source hardware- hacking it, writing and installing your own apps, is not only allowed but encouraged. It’s part of a new slew of “ambient internet devices,” for those of us who are both too lazy to go to websites actively, and yet can’t bear to be without our internets.
There’s no keyboard, but one pops up on the screen when necessary. It’s a pain in the ass, but it works. You need it to set up the WiFi connection when it requires a security key, or to enter mms streams that aren’t already listed. Right now it can receive several music applications, like Shoutcast, Pandora, iheartradio, and Radio Free Chumby, which gets many streams like Jersey’s own WFMU. You can get podcasts, internet video such as the highlights from Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show, Letterman’s Top Ten. I think you can get iTunes but I refuse to use blowJobs’s crap, so I wouldn’t know.
For music it works great- you just squeeze Chumby- as the control panel button is a switch inside the top part, like a teddy bear that talks- and the menu pops up. You press music, and oodles of choices of available. You can set up a Pandora account with channels from your computer, and then go to it on the Chumby and get customized music all day. Some folks hook up mp3 players using the USB ports, to use the speakers. It has a headphone jack, but the speakers are decent. It will play music in the background as it scrolls through other widgets, if you like.
The widgets are the weak point- right now they spend anywhere from 15 seconds to a few minutes per, and it can do stuff like show Facebook status of friends (couldn’t get it to work), or Twitter status of friends (also didn’t work), or scroll through your Photobucket photos (also not working). I got it to show Flickr photos using tags, but I can’t get a lot of the ones requiring authentication to work. Should be simple, but I can’t be bothered troubleshooting something that ought to work out of the box. Thank goodness it was free! It shines when playing stupid internet meme crap like lolcats, or streaming video; local weather, or the hypnotoad, imitating HAL, and other silly stuff. But it has lots of potential as the network grows, and I wouldn’t mind browsing friends’ youtube picks or Dugg! items on it.
It has a rabid fanbase who defend the lack of portability in the chumby forums, but I just don’t get it. For the home? Why not stream from PC to stereo? I guess the laptop-only crowd might not want to run their Macbook all the time. For video stuff chumby doesn’t seem ready yet, but it would be great as a little streaming internet TV for low-res stuff, and as a small digital picture frame. When you don’t have your laptop on. With a rechargeable battery and compatibility with EVDO and 3G broadband cellular USB devices, this would be awesome for internet radio in the car. Or a little squishy TV to plop down anywhere and watch video, play podcasts, and view your Facebook stuff.
What’s great about it is that it is extremely configurable, and if it doesn’t die early, a killer app may emerge. I loaded up a channel with widgets, like a Godzilla fighting game, nerd nostalgia like the computer screens from the Nostromo, Flickr streams, weather, news tickers and so on. I let it scroll on the arm of the couch; I can see it giving me an internet fix when I want to close the laptop and read a book, or listen to streaming music without leaving my PC on. The RSS reader may be its salvation; I would like to use Chumby to subscribe to photo streams, small blog feeds (like FAILblog, available as a widget), podcasts and video blogs. Right now I have the TV, am typing on the laptop, and part of me wants to see a scroll through my RSS feeds, friends photos updates and videos on Facebook, and youtube video channels, constantly pecking at me for attention. And another part of me finds that horrifying, like the TVs in “Max Headroom,” where off switches were illegal.